Othello: The Experience

For the UAS Whalesong
For the past month, Perseverance Theater has been putting on a stage performance of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Othello. I attended the performance in an attempt to branch out from my usual cinematic theater experience, and also because I won a free ticket at Campus Kickoff earlier this year. So, one rainy night that didn’t really differ from the usual kind of Juneau night in any way, I headed downtown with my friends to see if I could become a more culturally edified person.
My recollection of Othello was fairly limited going in. I remembered reading the play in high school – a “Shakespeare Made Easy” version with the original convoluted English on one page and the modern translation on the other. I also remembered that the general gist of the plot (sorry about spoilers, but it’s been out for a couple hundred years now) was that a guy named Iago works his hardest to break up the Moorish general Othello and Othello’s new wife, Desdemona. This culminates in Othello flying into a jealous rage and murdering Desdemona, then having Immediate Regret and killing himself. Other than that, though, I only really recalled dialogue, so I was interested to see what the Perseverance Theater had in store for me.
The first thing I noticed upon entering the theater was that the stage was fairly empty for a play. It was just a sort of dark blue square, with doors in the walls. This immediately tipped me off: this play was going to involve a lot of Monologues. It seems to me like there are two kinds of plays – ones where the characters move around and do stuff in different settings, like Pirates of Penzance, and then there are ones where the characters mostly just stand around talking to each other and to the audience. Othello ominously promised to be one of the latter.
It fulfilled this promise right off the bat, though the actors may have faltered slightly at the sensation of an abrupt disturbance in the Force. That disturbance was me, shrieking internally in the back of the theater because it had somehow entirely slipped my mind that a play I was fully aware had been written by Shakespeare and performed by Shakespearian actors in Shakespearian times would be in Shakespearian English. Maybe it was because I’d read the “Shakespeare Made Easy” version originally, but the thought had honestly not occurred to me until the first actor on stage opened his mouth. I’m not saying that this was a detriment to the play or its performance at all; it was more amusing than anything, though I did get a small headache from concentrating hard in an attempt to follow the dialogue. (Not all of us are great at deciphering relatively ancient English, especially if it’s not on a page right in front of us.)
First impressions out of the way, I’ll get on to discussing the actual performance – which was great! Jamil Mangan did a great job portraying Othello, who, despite what you might have been led to believe, is not actually the main character of the play. That would be Iago, who I’ve been told is Shakespeare’s most famous villain and was acted beautifully by a man named Brandon Demery. Brandon Demery, for the record, sounds a little like the guy who plays Voldemort in A Very Potter Musical. This is a good thing, and served in part to endear him to me while he alternately monologued about how much he hated Othello and accepted compliments from other characters about what a good, honest person he was.
As a college student, I personally was very impressed with Iago. Yes, he’s a bad person, and no, you shouldn’t ever aspire to do what he did, but I’ve got to hand it to the man – he had a marvelous head for planning and a top-notch ability to think on his feet. Even if I hated someone as much as he hated Othello, I don’t think that I could ever look as far ahead into the future as he did in order to take his enemy down. Another point that endeared me to Iago was that in the first act, whenever Othello and Desdemona were twirling each other about and making out, he would make eye contact with the audience and make and disgusted expressions. I personally found this hilarious, especially considering how dramatically over-the-top their romantic interactions were in the beginning.
Ultimately, I would recommend seeing or even just reading Othello if you’re into tragic romance stories and/or shouting about the bad choices everyone is making. I think it’s a little difficult to get into, if only because we as the audience know Iago is the bad guy while all the other characters trust him implicitly. Also, if you get to go see a live performance like I did, try sitting in the corner – it’s where the actors will stare dramatically during emotional scenes, which gives you an interesting perspective on the play. I had to stop myself from giving Othello an encouraging thumbs-up multiple times.
And in case you ever needed a definition of the term “frienemies,” I think Iago put it pretty well:
“Though I do hate him as hell pains, Yet, for necessity of present life, I must show out a flag and sign of love – which is indeed but sign.”

Photo Courtesy of Perseverance Theatre

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